In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that to discover the human good we must identify the function of a human being. I will first explain this idea of Aristotle’s known as the ‘function’ argument. He argues that the human function is rational activity. Our good is therefore rational activity performed ‘well’, which Aristotle takes to mean in accordance with virtue. I will then evaluate how Aristotle’s ‘function’ argument has a great degree of relevance to Plato’s perception of happiness in the Republic. After Socrates tries to establish that the just life is the happiest and best, Plato
Aristotle’s ‘function’ argument is defined in book one of his book Nimoachean Ethics. The purpose of the book is to discover the human good, identified as happiness, at which we ought to aim in life. Aristotle tells us that everyone refers to this “eudaimonia” (happiness), but that people disagree about what it consists in (1.4 1095b). In 1.6, Aristotle suggests that we might arrive at a clearer conception of happiness if we first determine the “ergon” (function) of a human being (1.7 1097b). The explanation for this line of inquiry is that ”for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function” (1.6 1097b). He presents the example of a flute player in the book to explain what he means by the function resides within the object conducting the activity. In order for one to be a flute player, one must know how to play the flute. Similarly, for one to be happy, happiness must exist within oneself. He also acknowledges that the human is a variation of the function, because the function of any task is absolute and perfect within itself. This concept can be further clarified using the example of the flute, there is an absolute and perfect way to play the flute, one of which we are incapable, therefore we play a slightly altered way, but it is still similar enough to it’s function form that we still consider the activity as playing the flute. The argument that follows establishes that human function is ”an active life of the element that has a rational principle” (1.7 1098a). By this Aristotle means every action has a purpose “for the sake of which others are done” (1.7 1098a). The flute is played to create music, medicine is practiced to cure, and like this, every task has it’s purpose. Therefore, happiness is the activity of the rational part of the soul and in accordance with virtue (1.7 1098a). Any function that has a rational principle must therefore be a rational part of the soul, and because we live life seeking to find happiness, happiness is a rational part of the soul making it a virtue.
Aristotle defines virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait.
The point of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but at a ‘golden mean’ which is sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, confidence the mean between self-deprecation and vanity, and generosity the mean between miserliness and extravagance. Finding the golden mean requires common-sense, not necessarily high intelligence. Aristotle views virtue as an excellence at being human, a skill that helps a person survive, thrive, form meaningful relationships, and find happiness (CITATION). He also states that virtues are initially difficult, but become easier with practice and eventually become habit.
Aristotle’s ‘function’ argument, is a descendant of one offered by Plato at the end of the ¬rst book of the Republic (Republic 352d-354b). Socrates tries establish that the just life is happiest and best, and he argues as follows. First of all, each thing has a function, which is what one can do only or best with that thing (R 352e). Furthermore, everything that has a function has a virtue, which enables it to perform its function well (R 352b-c). The function of the soul is ”taking care of things, ruling, deliberating, and the like,” since these are activities you could not perform with anything except your soul. A few lines later Socrates also proposes that ”living” is a function of the soul (R 353d). Since the soul only performs its function well if it has the virtue associated with its function, a good soul rules, takes care of things, and in general ”lives” well, while a bad soul does all this badly (R 353e). Since earlier arguments have supposedly established that justice is the virtue of the soul, Plato concludes that the just soul lives well, and therefore is blessed and happy, while an unjust one lives badly and so is wretched. Both versions of the argument seem to depend on a connection between being a good person and having a good or happy life, and their aim is to connect both of these in turn to rationality.
Aristotle’s version of the argument in particular has provoked a great deal of criticism, some of which I describe in the next section. In this essay, I offer an account of what Aristotle means by ”function” and what the human function is, drawing on Aristotle’s metaphysical and psychological writings. I then reconstruct Aristotle’s argument in terms of the results. My purpose is to defend the function argument, and to show that when it is properly understood, it is possible to answer many of the objections that have been raised to it. For reasons I will explain below, I think it is essential to make good sense of the function argument, because the theoretical structure of the Nicomachean Ethics collapses without it. Part of the defense is conditional, and shows only that if one held Aristotle’s metaphysical beliefs, the function argument would seem as natural and obvious as it clearly seemed to him. But part of it is intended to be unconditional, and to show that, gien certain assumptions about reason and virtue, which, if not obvious, are certainly not crazy, the function argument is a good way to approach the question how to live well.
The major differences that can be seen between these two arguments are seen when we examine the goals of both Plato and Aristotle. Plato has two main goals behind his argument, the first is to refute the position that injustice is better than justice. Secondly, his human function argument helps to set up the idea of his model cities, in which each person has a function and the city is virtuous when everyone performs their own function. Aristotle is examining happiness as the ultimate end and is searching for ways to get to that end. Thus, by proving that this good is found in the expression of reason, Aristotle is able to prescribe a path to happiness. If one fulfills one’s function, expression of reason, and does so in an excellent manner, one will necessarily attain happiness.
Another way in which the two arguments differ is on their actual conceptualization of what the human function is. For Plato, the human function is defined as deliberation, ruling, living and taking care of things. This differs greatly from Aristotle idea of the human function which is, to perform activities that express reason. Not only are these two definitions very different, but they illustrate the chasm between the ways that each philosopher is thinking of the concept of a human function. Plato thinks of it in terms of the person’s place in society. His ideas of ruling, deliberatingâ€¦etc pertain to the community in which one lives, and one’s relation to it. Aristotle approaches the problem from a much more individualistic point of view. Expressing reason in one’s action does not have anything to do with a relationship with other people or a community, but relates only to the individual.
In conclusion, the biggest difference between Plato’s argument and Aristotle’s is their conceptualization of the concept of the human function. Also, their goals are vastly different. Plato uses his argument to refute those who would argue that injustice is beneficial and to set up his model city, in which virtue for the city is derived from each person fulfilling their function. Aristotle, on the other hand, uses his argument to directly set up a method for achieving the ultimate good.